The few times I’ve tried to blog over the last year, I’ve attempted to put distance between myself and my writing. I wanted my life my life and observations on music to somehow read as effortlessly and romantically as Stendhal or Goethe, when in reality my thoughts on music are about as graceful as a horrible episode from Lena Dunham’s Girls. But when you’re in your twenties, that’s precisely what the internet is for, on the proviso that you just say “yo hell with it” and take advantage of the world wide web.
In avoiding my blog, I’ve been treating it like it’s precious, worrying about how things would look either in a year’s time or twenty years’ time, without remembering (a) the sheer size of the internet and (b) the ephemerality of any musical or intellectual idea. Over and over, I told myself I was going to write about the Goldberg Variations. Every week, I told myself I would start writing about my practicing, the things I was seeing it, etc. But over and over, I couldn’t really get past the Aria. I was fearful of saying too much, or stepping into musicological territory that I wasn’t qualified to talk about, or – God forbid – show an honest opinion. Isolation is powerful. If we let it go too far, it pervades not just our personal interactions, but the way we think about the things we do every day. Without realizing it, we can start putting up barriers where they shouldn’t be, lest we find something that taps into our senses too deeply for comfort.
I believe this is no less true than in the Goldbergs. If you go to any piece of writing about the Goldberg Variations you’re likely to get a lovely analysis of each movement on its own, with considerations of constituent dance forms, counterpoint and those little teeny tiny deviations from the harmonic structure set up in the Aria. This is fine, really. It’s a perfectly respectable way of thinking about the text of Goldbergs and how Bach was a technical genius.
But that’s just not the whole story. Consider that 99.9% of people who enjoy the Goldbergs don’t have the text memorized when they head to a concert. And even if a listener is a music dork or classical musician knows the piece really well, there’s no way for a performance of the Goldbergs to occupy the same time frame as a physical copy of the score. You can open up a score and peruse it, read through it, flip back and forth and have it all there for you at once. Meanwhile, sitting through the performance takes an hour or so. This is all to say that those wonderful analyses we read give us a fantastic idea of how to “play” or “read” but not necessarily how to listen, or to consider what the effect is of listening to the Goldbergs in real time.
While I was in Cambridge to record the Goldbergs, I started to read obsessively when I wasn’t practicing, as if I was literally slipping back into my former self as an undergraduate. The used bookstore around the corner from my room in St. Edward’s Passage had a handy (and cheap) selection of tattered paperbacks, some of which I skimmed, others of which I buried myself into through the drear of caffeine and jetlag. Unsurprisingly, as I was getting to be nostalgic, the books I picked up had either a Cambridge or gay connection of some sort (self-control victory: I stopped myself from picking up Brideshead Revisited for the umpteenth time).
(The following summaries are in run-on sentences for the purpose of appropriate intelligibility. And humor.)
The Illiad (?) Homer – shit goes down as the division between mortals and Gods gets cast in stone in antiquity.
Invitation to a Beheading, (1936) Vladimir Nabokov – Groundhog Day for Russophiles and Tories and there’s no Bill Murray thank God.
Maurice, E.M. Forster (1971) – Cambridge University’s poor man’s Brideshead but with more sex and less popery.
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924) – Everyone dies because of tuberculosis.
Short Stories, Edgar Allan Poe – Everyone dies dramatically because of tuberculosis.
Exquisite Corpse, (1996) Poppy Z. Brite – Everyone dies because ecstasy fuelled Southern necrophiliac and Londoner psychotic cannibal find love in New Orleans in the midst of the AIDS crisis as they share in consuming a local Vietnamese heroin addict from head to toe #loveisloveislove.
Pale Fire, (1961) Vladimir Nabokov – reader is forced to sort through a bad poem (front of book) with commentary by a murderous bipolar academic (back of book) more time is spent page-flipping than actually reading.
Cassandra (1984) Christa Wolf – Cassandra of Troy spews forth feminist stream of consciousness about sexual trauma, gendered alienation, ethnic tensions at conclusion of the Trojan Wars.
It was about the time that I came back round to Nabokov that I started laying down tracks for the recording. Perhaps the most conceptual of Nabokov’s workds, the reader is introduced to a 999 line poem by a slightly deranged aristocratic expat from a far-off nation (Zembla) ravaged by revolution. The poem’s author, however, is dead, thus leaving introducer cum commentator in the sole position of authority on how a poem composed on index cards ought to be read. As the poem is void of indices or reference numbers, one is forced to flip endlessly back and forth from commentary to poem, without any guarantees that the commentary will be of any insight into the poem at all. Indeed, Pale Fire isn’t about “reading” either the commentary or the poem, but the act of piecing the two together to decide (1) who murdered the author, (2) if the author ever existed, (3) where Nabokov is talking about himself or (4) where Nabokov is talking about his fictitious characters.
Back in King’s College Chapel, the act of repeating the Aria over and over during the sound check ushered in a bizarre memory trip that I took with me for the rest of the week. In practicing the variations the next morning, I felt as if I was living Peter Williams’ analyses of the Goldbergs in which every variation is related back to the structure and content of the opening Aria. The thought processes thereafter are not unsurprising: “Ooh this chord is different here than it was in the beginning, make sure to bring that out.” “That inner voice is mucho sexy, because you can hear it in the soprano in the Aria, but now it’s in alto and that’s cool and everyone should be made as aware of it as much as possible.” And of course, I would get out my iPhone and record myself paying attention to all these details like a good “performative musicologist,” and realize that my playing now had all the subtlety and poise of a rhinoceros passing a kidney stone the size of a DVD player. It wasn’t musical constipation so much as a hostage situation, as if I was trying force the listener to hear everything that I could see.
There’s an overwhelming temptation to treat the Goldbergs not just like a book, but a testament to mnemonic association. We get so fixated on the idea that the variations constitute individual and mutually isolated afterthoughts, that we train our minds to try and flip back and forth in our minds the way one would in reading Nabokov. Of course, that if one part of the story, as Bach and Nabokov both had their reputations for self-conscious intellectual naughtiness (I mean what could possibly be funnier than exasperating someone dumber than you, right?). The Goldbergs can exhaust your sensibilities if you let them, as your faculties can get taxed again and again as you struggle to remember how each variation is a pearl.
Of course, when I sat down to record, this all fell apart. More time was spent dealing with logistical issues of the fact that the Goldbergs were not in fact written for the harp. “Let’s get rid of that buzz, shall we?” “Let’s see if we can eliminate that creak in the bench.” “Is there any way to avoid that pedal noise?”At various points I found myself holding the harp with just my right shoulder, controlling all my pedaling with my knees and not my ankles (to make the action of changing sharps and flats as slow as possible), and changing all my lovely French technique and fingerings to iron out those eccentricities which I had so painstakingly cultivated. The notion of creating some lasting “permanent” interpretation of the Goldbergs had somewhat gone out the window, as the conditions of the recording session started to bear down. (In other words, a large, difficult work on a large, difficult instrument in a large difficult, room… is a large, difficult pain in the ass.)
As the sessions went on, I buried myself in Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, which I was inspired to read after listening to composer Michael Jarrell’s work of the same name. Cassandra of Troy’s memories of the war and her experiences in the palace of Agamemnon are scattered and chaotic. While one can try to relate her story either to Homer or Aeschylus, the incessance of the prose begs one to stay in the moment, relishing the kaleidoscope of ideas as they shift from one to the next. One minute, she’s remembering how Apollo spat in her mouth to give her the ability to prophesy, then on to she’s describing the water beneath a ship, and then further commenting on the consistency of wine drunk by the men who have enslaved her. Seamlessly jumping across time and space, Wolf’s genius in writing is the use of ideas like “liquid” to talk describe real events and foster metaphors for Cassandra’s emotional alienation from her plight.
In recording the variations, one by one, I had to give excerpts from the preceding and subsequent movements to provide adequate material for the producer for editing, as well as to provide tuning checks and tempo signposts. I think it was here that my view of the Goldbergs started to shift. For instance in moving from the Aria and into the next three variations, the subtle and most continuous connective tissue between them wasn’t a harmonic structure, but a cell of three notes.
The ornament on the third beat of the Aria is one of the most famous in Western music. It places an enormous dissonance on a weak beat of a bar (an A over a G Major chord), and proceeds resolves it upwards briefly to a B, before returning back to the A which is now not a dissonance but part of a D major chord. That ornament apart from propelling the motion forward from the very first notes of the Goldbergs is pervasive throughout the entire Aria, providing space for all that languid harpsichord-y expressiveness that often sounds like the performer intentionally has no rhythm.
But it doesn’t stop there. Just after the Aria ends, Variation 1 picks it up and uses it as a rhythmic engine. Not only that, but the left hand incorporates it as implying imitation and counterpoint – that is, providing the essence of two voices – with a single line. You can hear the two hands passing back and forth like an argument or conversation, providing the ears with something to latch onto.
Go to Variation 2, and things get more interesting. The same rhythmic cell is used in the left hand, but slowed down by half, while the original quick ornament is used in the right hand to change that sacrosanct G Major chord into a spicy E minor. It’s crazy: the ornament has literally bifurcated itself, bringing the listener into two different temporal landscapes at once.
Variation 3: a canon, whereby two voices copy each other exactly, but at different pitch levels. The melody – you guessed it – uses the same ornament, repeating itself right-side up and upside-down as if there’s an internal canon or imitation scheme going (not dissimilar to the left hand from variation 1). In listening, one can hear the repetition one on another like one of Escher’s staircases, weaving in and out of each other, using repetitive right angles to obfuscate a tangible sense of space or proportion.
For me, I think this is why the Goldberg Variations make people bananas, as Bach engages both mnemonic and short-memory levels to create hourlong super structures in the mind, while engaging the ears in real time. Unlike a lot of music of the Baroque, and even some of Bach’s own music, the Goldbergs really show themselves in their intended medium for live performance and audiation, rather than textual study.
Of course, the highly technical language I’m using to describe these phenomena is possible due to my access to the score, but that doesn’t mean it’s not identifiable without it. One of the best things about Bach is the ability for beauty to be revealed without knowing precisely “how” he’s doing it. Though Bach may be driving the bus, the listener gets to sit inside for the ride rather than watch it drive by. To go along and really enjoy what Bach might be offering, it requires to you sit back and relish an experience in real time, and sometimes not to dwell in the past. Indeed, over-compartmentalization of anything can lead to a fragmented experience.
I’ve decided to let go, and accept that the last year with the Goldbergs has been part of a healing process. On a musical level, the flow and continuity of the work is too incredible to leave to one side. And, in my own life, I’ve grown tired of pretending that there are parts of my life that aren’t there, and haven’t shaped the way I look at a piece of music. I’ve decided to start reading again, getting that cup coffee, and taking the space to face the music as it hits me.